Doing Trump with a funny voice, the danger is he just becomes a clown
Armando Iannucci, one of the most feared satirist's in the business, takes on Stalin in a comedy of terrors
Where do you go after satirising Westminster and the American vice-presidency? What more dials are there to twist? The incomparable Armando Iannucci, co-creator of The Thick of It and Veep, turned to the USSR in the days after Stalin’s demise. His darkly uproarious The Death of Stalin ups the ante – death, rather than dismissal, is at stake – but it still feels unsettlingly familiar.
“I was looking at dictatorships because democracy was getting frayed at the edges,” he says. “You had Turkey, Berlusconi in Italy and various dubious movements forming in other countries. This is pre-Trump. I was then approached with the graphic novel on which The Death of Stalin is based. I thought: this is it. Why do a metaphor?”
A busy, varied cast of actors – each keeping his or her own accent – play the officials jockeying for position after Stalin’s demise. Steve Buscemi is Khrushchev. Andrea Riseborough is Svetlana Stalina. The desperation is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.
“We tried to be respectful,” he says. “The knocks on the doors. The gulags. Why try not to dilute it. It has themes in it that are not meant to be in the least funny. When we showed it to people who grew up under Stalin, they have said: ‘I laughed throughout, but it is true.’ That’s the thing.”
Now 53, Armando Iannucci, like many feared satirists, is eminently reasonable and balanced in person. He was raised in Scotland, the son of an Italian pizza magnate, and studied English at Oxford and has admitted to voting Liberal Democrat on at least one occasion.
It is 25 years since, on BBC Radio 4, he came together with talents such as Steve Coogan, Rebecca Front and Chris Morris to devise the brilliant media satire On the Hour. When The Thick of It, his busy, sweary satire emerged in 2005, it was almost immediately declared a worthy successor to Yes, Minister.
This time the advisers were more powerful than the civil servants. But the MPs remained equally flattened by the pressures of the job. From The Thick of It through Veep to The Death of Stalin, survival remains more important than ideology.
“I hate it when that becomes the presiding thing: we’re just going to get through the day,” he muses. “That’s not about politicians. It’s about us. We demand they be word-perfect every time they do an interview. Everything must always be sorted. They are not allowed to go on holiday. God forbid! How dare they! We kind of brutalise them, in a way. Why would you go into politics if that’s how you are going to be treated?”
When they fail, we think: Next time, we’ll pick somebody who’s nothing like a politician. This is where we are now in the US
This is an interesting line. By the time Rebecca Front arrived in The Thick of It as Nicola Murray MP, you definitely felt sorry for the poor woman.
“Yes, I think that’s true in Veep too,” he says. “None of them commits a crime. They are trying to get things right with the limited power that they have. It’s different in The Death of Stalin. They may be shot. The stakes are higher. But we put this endless pressure on politicians and when they fail, we think: Next time, we’ll pick somebody who’s nothing like a politician. This is where we are now in the US.”
Doing Trump with a funny voice, the danger is he just becomes a clown. Clowns are dangerous, of course
Poor Armando. He’s not going to get through today without being asked about Donald Trump. It is easy to suggest that The Donald is like something out of Veep, but, in truth, he’s more monstrous than any character in the show.
“I am relieved I am no longer working on Veep,” he says. “It’s so hard to keep up. Comedians like John Oliver or Seth Meyers or Samantha Bee have become like journalists. They go through Trump’s speeches. They present the facts as they happened and the comedy comes from those facts. Doing Trump with a funny voice, the danger is he just becomes a clown. Clowns are dangerous, of course. We know that. Ha ha. But he’s more than a clown.”
Iannucci and his colleagues have had a significant influence on how politics and culture are discussed. Back when the Berlin Wall was still being tidied away, they helped Steve Coogan devise Alan Partridge for On the Hour, The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You. He has been with us ever since. He may remain an idiot. But he does remain. He is always there for us.
“Oh, that would have delighted us,” he says, laughing. “We always knew he had legs. We subconsciously decided early on not to overdo him. We bring him back every few years or so. The world will have changed. He will have changed a bit, too. We all like Alan. He makes us laugh. When we meet up we speculate on what he’s up to. He’s basically another character in our lives.”
Though less of a mainstream smash, The Thick of It has had just as important an effect on the public conversation. Malcolm Tucker, the savage spin-doctor with Alastair Campbell’s taste for profane rhetoric, has come to represent all that’s worst in presentation politics. “Omnishambles,” one of his less obscene neologisms, became the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2012.
I have heard that Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press spokesman, didn’t much care for The Thick of It.
“He’s gone through various phases,” Iannucci says with something like a weary sigh. “He’s denied it and says it wasn’t true. Now he relishes the idea. Now he says Malcolm Tucker is based on him. And it’s not really. It’s based on the likes of him and Peter Mandelson. But it’s also based on the various nameless enforcers who were around different ministers telling them what they could and couldn’t say.”
The truth is that all politicians and officials love having shows made about them. The thing they hate most is being ignored. Better to have a savage Spitting Image puppet than no Spitting Image puppet at all.
“It’s so odd,” Iannucci says. “We were being shown around the West Wing by Obama’s aide Reggie Love. He would say things like: ‘This is the Roosevelt Room. This is where the likes of CJ and Josh would work.’ He’d reference the TV show The West Wing. But . . . but . . . you’re real. Why are you referencing a fictional show? You are CJ and Josh. Why don’t you say: ‘This is the room where Barack Obama would sit down with Angela Merkel’? Why don’t you say that?”
He’s reached a state of blissful bewilderment with his own excellent story. Well, at least they weren’t complaining about being made fun of.
“Oh politicians always say ‘I can take a joke’, and then, when they hear it, they say: ‘That’s not fair.’ As if a joke has to be fair.”
THE ‘ON THE HOUR’ GENERATION
Though not university pals like the Beyond the Fringe or Monty Python teams, the comedians who worked in On the Hour for Radio 4 have become similarly influential.
The rarely interviewed, still enigmatic Essex man went on to create the disturbing satirical series Brass Eye and the influential film Four Lions (2010). Who knows what’s next?
Probably the biggest star to emerge from the gang; the face of Alan Partridge also excelled in 24 Hour Party People, What Maisie Knew and The Trip. Oscar-nominated for writing Philomena.
Hugely versatile actor who was was darkly funny in Big Train and Nighty Night on TV. Harried in The Thick of It. Recently seen (bizarrely) in Transformers: The Last Knight.
The former Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan retired behind the camera to write such acclaimed films as Closer and Notes on a Scandal.
Helped move comedy forwards in the millennial hit Smack the Pony. Went on to become an admired stage actor. Recently seen in Twelfth Night at the National Theatre in London.